Online vs Campus MS-GIS?
June 4, 2012 11:17 PM   Subscribe

Master's Degree in GIS - Online vs. On Campus?

I am considering several MS-GIS programs, and a few of the schools I have looked at offer an online option. The possibility of completing an online program intrigues me, and I am curious if anyone out there has experience with one.
I have never taken an online course and just worry about missing out on the face-to-face interaction that a student can get by attending classes at a physical location.
An on-campus program would be fine; I have no ties to my current city. However, moving is a PITA so all things being equal, an online program would make things easier.
Experiences, ideas, opinions appreciated!
posted by tillei to Education (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Personally I hate online classes. I've tried a couple, with numerous styles...but the problem with me is the information doesn't stick in the same way.

If your top school offers both, however, would it be possible to try our the online option and switch to the on-site instruction if you need to? Maybe take a semester of intro courses online and see how you like it?
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 11:58 PM on June 4, 2012

My brother teaches undergrad GIS at George Mason University. He has an online class and a regular class. I have heard him comment that his students in his regular class seem to do better because the software they use (ARCGIS) can be rather complicated and students value the feedback they can get real-time as they work on a project during class.

I took a GIS class as an undergrad and I don't think I would have done as well without the ability to work with other students--and I am something of a computer guru.

Having said that, if you are already familiar with the software and necessary data massage, it might be just fine.

I took one online class and I would never do it again. It was easily twice as much work, what with all the requirements for forum participation and other interactions with the professor. YMMV, of course.
posted by xyzzy at 12:03 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've taken 16 online courses and I haven't dropped out yet, so clearly it can be done. You get used to it. But if moving isn't a real hardship for you and you don't mind living near school, I see no real reason not to go in person. The bonds you build with your fellow students are a potentially big part of your future success in your industry, and those bonds are much easier to build in person.
posted by town of cats at 12:09 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

My coworker got her online GIS masters at Penn State after some years of working for it. Since she was already was doing GIS for her bread and butter, she didn't have too hard of a time at it, but it still took years to complete (still working full time), and she got to do things she wouldn't normally get to do at work. You do get grouped up with other online folks for projects, make online presentations to your professor, have to deal with group members not pulling their weight, etc.
posted by Seboshin at 12:21 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

You don't say what your current education level is. How much GIS experience do you already have? Are you familiar with ESRI products? Can you work with layers? Convert projections? Build models? Work with remote sensing data? If you are a GIS technician, and what you are looking for is to add increasing complexity to the work you already do, an online program might work well, since you are building on existing skills and it won't be difficult to interpret directions. However, if you're transitioning from another field (even a related one with a strong quantitative focus like math or CS) I don't think an online program would be a good idea. This stuff is seriously complicated, even for people with strong tech skills, and it can be really helpful to have someone over your shoulder, in-person, showing you exactly what to do and where you screwed it up.
posted by epanalepsis at 6:15 AM on June 5, 2012

I have a Master's in GIS from a good school, live in person. I would not recommend online at all. Not only do you miss out on the collaborative experience offered by a traditional program but you also miss out on the connections with classmates. I got a job through a grad school friend and I've seen quite a few others among my cohort. I've also made some great lifelong friends.

I know there are some interesting online collaboration tools out there and video chatting, message boards, etc., but that is not a substitute for real life interaction with instructors and classmates.

I also know some people who shy away from hiring people with an online degree because you simply can't learn as much that way.

The only situation in which I don't think this is an awful idea is if you already have a lot of GIS knowledge and just need a piece of paper to boost your resume.
posted by look busy at 6:23 AM on June 5, 2012

I think this depends to a big degree on the quality of the students and instructors in the program you're considering. I took a class that used ArcGIS one summer (still get the advert newsletter!) and, frankly, I'd have been happier if it was online. Working in the same computer lab under time pressure with gregarious, loud classmates was hell. Eventually I just installed the student version on my laptop and did all of the work at home, only showing up to class to turn it in.
posted by Nomyte at 6:30 AM on June 5, 2012

I could have asked this very question - in fact, I seriously considered asking this very question. Awaiting more responses and thanks to tillei
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 8:24 AM on June 5, 2012

I teach basic GIS at a good university using ESRI products. If it's done properly, online GIS tuition generally works well. By properly I mean: well-structured exercises, scheduled video consultations, supporting textbook, class wiki and fora, at least 10 hours set work a week for part-time and three times that for full, plus reading, and ideally an individual project. It works well because getting to know Arc is a graded process (not smooth as in easy but smooth as in sequential) and your requirement for hand-holding decreases quite fast as you learn its design philosophy.

If one or several of these things is missing, you should be sceptical. You should be sceptical because there are a lot of good self-paced texts out there, a lot of great FOSS products and a lot of helpful people: you absolutely can learn GIS to nearly professional analyst level without ever setting foot in a teaching lab.

Whether you actually need certification or a particular software product for your next step is an industry-specific question: I'm lucky enough that most of my students want the analytical results not the subsequent career, so YMMVAL.
posted by cromagnon at 9:03 AM on June 5, 2012

WOW! Thanks everyone!

I do have several years of real-world experience with GIS and have taken courses at the undergrad and graduate levels, but want to make the jump to getting the actual degree.

I know from taking courses that for me, having the instructor and classmates there for advice and assistance with those inevitable problems, glitches, etc can be a godsend, and I worry about not having that with a virtual classroom.

Even with my experience and comfort level with GIS, I suppose I was asking the question knowing that I was somewhat wary of the online format, and these answers have definitely given me some clarity.
posted by tillei at 9:45 AM on June 5, 2012

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